Monday, November 28, 2011

Four Month Watsoversary

Being 1/3 of the way through this crazy year sounds MUCH more accomplished than being 1/4 of the way through it, don’t you think? I do. I’ve now been gone from the United States for 17 weeks and 5 days. When I think of how much has happened, it still feels like I’ve been gone much longer. That said, every month is going by faster and I have a feeling that it won’t be long before I’ll start worrying about how little time I have left.

A few weeks ago I finished Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence and it became a new favorite. There’s a lot about the novel that I would love to dissect, but on an emotional level, what I loved most is the conception of time that it presents. As you can imagine, this year time is on my mind a lot. In the novel, the protagonist, Kemal, is obsessively in love with his former girlfriend (and distant cousin), Fusun, and won’t let go of the idea of being with her even though she’s married. He eats dinner with her family every night for eight years just to be around her. While I find this more of a stalkerish and upsetting gesture than a romantic one, (and I think that might be the way Pamuk intended it to be), what I do love is Kemal’s justification for it and how much joy those nights brought him in retrospect.

He says, “For me happiness is in reliving those unforgettable moments. If we can learn to stop thinking of our lives as a line corresponding to Aristotle’s Time, treasuring our time instead of its deepest moments, each in turn, then waiting eight years at your beloved’s dinner table no longer seems such a strange and laughable obsession but rather (as I would discover much later) assumes the reality of 1,593 happy nights at Fusun’s dinner table. Today I remember each and every evening I went to supper in Cukurcuma—even the most difficult, most hopeless, most humiliating evenings—as happiness” (p.289).

And while I hate to compare my Watson year with this disturbing pattern of Kemal’s, I can most definitely relate to the narrative that he created around the passing of time.

I know these will become 365 days of retrospective happiness, even though there are days that don’t feel particularly happy. Looking at the year on a timeline makes it feel quite daunting indeed, particularly because of the guidelines that control how it must be spent. But when I look at the year as a series of waking up 365 times in seven (plus) countries, of finding my way to 365 different breakfasts, of the walks I will take, the people I will meet, the sights I will see, the year becomes a manageable reality. Knowing that there is, truly, no other way I’d rather be spending my year is most often enough of a reassurance. And that recognition in itself, to borrow from Pamuk, is turning even the most difficult, most hopeless and most humiliating times into happiness.

In the last month I have:

-Set foot on two new countries (United Arab Emirates and Morocco) and one new continent (Africa).

-Listened to a sitar concert.

-Ridden in a cycle rickshaw.

-Brought my total number of Indian states visited up to 8 (out of 28 total). (I left India having been to Andra Pradesh, Delhi, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, and Uttar Pradesh)

-Eaten a lot of unidentifiable dilli chaat.

-Survived the Delhi metro during rush hour (barely).

-Had my 1st experience getting (and eradicating!) bed bugs.

-Seen the Taj Mahal.

-Witnessed 3 brutal traffic accidents and was in a minor one.

-Bought a pair of camel leather shoes.

-Learned how hand block prints are made.

-Seen (and gone hiking in) the Himalayas.

-Learned a few phrases of Hindi and can make basic conversation in Moroccan Arabic (Darija).

-Had shorter hair than I’ve had since kindergarten.

-Spent a night in Dubai

-Slept in eight different beds.

-Celebrated an Indian Halloween and a Moroccan Thanksgiving.

-Been humbled by the number of people I’ve met in the last month for whom being tri-lingual is just a simple fact of life.

-Reached a new high in terms of DISH (Daily Incidents of Street Harrassment). I think the double whammy of India and Morocco did this, and I’m hoping it goes down from here….

-Ran by the ocean.

-Drunk a ridiculous amount of mint tea.

-Felt cold for the first time in months.

-Voted in a Moroccan film festival.

-Become entirely comfortable being alone.

Here’s to the happiness of 124 days passed, here’s to 241 more uncertain mornings.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Moroccan Thanksgiving

Even though I didn’t know just how much I’d love Rabat, I'd been looking forward to my time in Morocco since the beginning of my Watson year. This is for the simple reason that for me, Morocco meant visitors. Under the stipulations of the Watson Fellowship, although we can’t go home for the year, we can have people come to us (at least in moderation). For whatever reason (I can think of many), when I spelled out the list of the countries where I’d be spending the next year, Morocco became the place that friends and family wanted to come see me. The country itself is interesting, beautiful, relatively safe, and I’ll be here until (almost) the halfway point of my twelve months away which seems like a great time to see people. For all these reasons, over the next few weeks I’m going to get to see the faces of some loved ones from home, and I just cannot wait to be able to share a little piece of this year with them.

(It should also be noted that a lot of the promises for visits abroad were made during my Watson application process, when the fellowship felt like a very faint possibility. As my mother recently told someone, she remembers “rashly” promising me that if I got it, she and my Dad would come wherever I was at Christmas. About seven months after making that distant promise, I’ll be meeting them in Casablanca on Christmas morning).

The first of these visitors informed me he was coming the day before he arrived. In typical spontaneity, my friend from Swarthmore, Will, arrived in Casablanca from Siena on Wednesday night for a “Moroccan Thanksgiving.” (An idea we had joked about since I found out I got the Watson Fellowship last March and he was making plans to spend fall semester of his junior year abroad in Italy. Never did I think this hypothetical situation would actually happen…)

But it did. We've spent the last few days reminiscing about Swarthmore, exploring some sights of Rabat both unfamiliar and familiar to me, cat sitting for a new friend, and of course, celebrating Thanksgiving.

On Friday we had our own Thanksgiving celebration with Rachel and a few other new friends. The five of us all contributed dishes to make for as American of a Thanksgiving as we could get in Morocco.
Moments of triumph included finding a can of cranberry sauce from an American neighbor (never mind that it was a few years old), and discovering, out of necessity, that it's possible to cook a homemade apple pie in a toaster oven. (Who knew?!) We also insisted on playing Christmas music all day in our Rabat kitchen. ‘Tis the season, my friends, and I don’t intend to miss it.

Above: Pie disaster averted.

There’s a lot for me to be thankful for this year, but perhaps most especially that I have new friends to celebrate old holidays with, and old friends who are willing to share in all this newness with me in whatever way they can. Here’s hoping you had a lovely holiday as well.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Une Coupe de Cheveux Grande

I have to admit that I'm pretty vain about my hair. I've worn it long since kindergarten, and, once I finally passed the straight-hair envy high school phase, most often leave it alone to form its unpredictable waves.

But this year is about change, and on a whim I wandered into a hair salon on a rainy Rabat day. It felt like a sign that the person at reception spoke a few words of English, and between my limited French and VERY limited Arabic, I got the point across. I decided to embrace spontaneity, try not to panic, and keep my eyes down as nearly a foot of hair ended up on the floor.

And this is what I ended up with. Much shorter than I've ever had it before, and probably much shorter than I would have wanted if there weren't communication barriers involved, but hey, let's be honest, this is way easier for traveling.

Insert gratuitous photos that have little to do with my project or my travels, but, in my defense, CAN relate to embracing the changes that are this year. (Because if I'm not going to try this now, when will I?)

(I'm still a little afraid to wash it and see what it looks like curly....)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Name Post: Introduction to Morocco

Morocco is the first country on my list where the pressure to choose specific names is governmentally-based. A lot of my questions surrounding names here mirror a lot of conversations about how various political and cultural identities are represented. In case you were as ignorant as I was a few months, I’ll fill you in that Morocco is officially a constitutional monarchy. The King, Mohammed VI , serves as both a governmental and religious figure. He still has ultimate legal authority and the ability to override other branches of the government. It’s an exciting time in Morocco right now because there are parliamentary elections on the 25th and since last February, there have been a lot of political actions and protests for constitutional reforms.

How this all relates to names is that names in Morocco are strictly monitored by a set of laws (37-99). Expectant parents are told to choose from a list of approved names in order to choose something that represents “Moroccan identity.” One example of this I recently heard at a dinner party is that in Morocco, you can name a baby “Sara” (which is the more traditional Arabic version of the name) but not “Sarah”, (which is the more traditional Hebrew version of the name).

Unlike in Indonesia and India, where it was only recently that births (and names) began to be formally recorded across all different sects of the population, I’m curious to now be in a place that has such a regimented system for names and the choices of names that are available. Specifically, Article 21 of Law 37-99 says that a first name must have a “Moroccan character and must be neither a name of a family nor a name composed of more than two first names, nor the name of a city, village or tribe, and must not constitute an affront to good morals or the public order." (This is in almost direct contrast to my experiences in India where a large majority of the population is named after their father’s village or local deity).

There is, of course, a way around this law which would be just to not register a child’s birth at the civil registrar and then call her whatever you want. The problem with this is that it makes for a lot of difficulty later if, for example, the child wants to apply for a passport or receive health insurance. Furthermore, this law seems to apply to members of the Morrocan diaspora as well. I recently read an article that discussed how a list of approved-names was sent to Holland so that the Dutch government can help the Moroccan government by restricting the names of Dutch-Moroccan children born in the EU.

Of most interest to me, just starting out, is the question of names and Berber identity. Berbers (today called Imazighen) refer t o the people indigenous to North Africa and who traditionally lived in tribes. Berber language and Berber heritage are important (and controversial) topics in contemporary Morocco. Although most Moroccans today (including the King) have some Berber heritage, there’s traditionally been a lot of discrimination towards Berbers (and there continues to be). A lot of recent reform efforts have sought to try to preserve Berber language by standardizing the alphabet and offering Berber language classes in schools.

Despite these reforms, however, just recently (in 2009), a law was put in place that banned the use of Berber names on Moroccan birth certificates. Understandably, a lot of human rights groups criticized this law but the response of Idris Bajidi, the administrative authority officer was that “the [Berber] names on the list contradict the Moroccan identity and it opens the door for the random spread of meaningless names.” In other words, there could be no Pilot Inspektor in Morocco.

Of course, it is grossly problematic to conflate the idea of using Berber names with “the random spread of meaningless names.” What’s really interesting to me (and some human rights groups) about this law is that the idea of names with a “Moroccan character” is being interpreted to exclude Berber names, even though the Amazigh people were the oldest people to be in Morocco. This means that a “Moroccan name” is being defined as one that is specifically Arabic-Islamic.

This also brings up huge questions for me about the role of freedom in naming--is limiting the names that people can use an affront to human rights? It seems, like in the case of discriminating against Berbers, it certainly is. On the other hand, might not limiting the names that people can use similarly an affront to human rights? (Although allowing someone to give their child any name of their choosing, as it is in the U.S. for example, is giving that person a specific freedom, isn’t the kid who grows up being called Hitler having his freedom restricted, in some sense?) (See, for example:

I’m hoping to talk to a wide range of sources while I’m here in order to try and delve into these questions.

Sources & Further Reading:,,,

Scenes of Settling

Okay, so I know that I've kind of fallen in love with every place I've visited so far this year, but it's happened again. And this time, it's really a Rabat-where-have-you-been-all-my-life-we're-soulmates-kind of love. I'm already plotting how I could get a job here once my Watson year is over.

I haven't posted a lot lately because all of my photos would pretty much exclusively be of the kitchen of my new apartment or of the ocean. (Not that there's anything wrong with that). I continue to be going on a serious domestic kick as I settle into this apartment and make vast amounts of chicken noodle soup that is more than Rachel (my roommate) and I could ever possibly eat.
The first step to making chicken noodle soup in Rabat.

A bit of background on Rabat: It's Morocco's capital with a population of 1.7 million (in other words, it feels tiny after many Indian cities). It's not that popular of a tourist destination because there aren't many sights to see in Rabat itself, but it's a big academic and cosmopolitan place, as well as an ex-pat hub.

The city is divided into the old medina (left) and the ville nouvelle (right).

The beach, cemetery and walls of the Oudaya.

It's also a deliciously photogenic place, especially the old medina and the Oudayas at the center of the city which are covered in blue paint.

I've spent the last few days getting the lay of the land and wandering through Rabat's nooks and crannies while I wait for various research contacts to e-mail me back. I've also started some Darija (Moroccan Arabic) tutoring--just a few lessons to make my interactions with neighbors and shopkeepers slightly more comprehensible. My head is spinning with French and Arabic and English (and somehow Indonesian as well), but it's giving me some structure and helping me understand this place.

Perhaps most exciting of all is that after four months of solo travel, I have a social life! Thanks to living with a roommate who's around my own age, I've been connected to some amazing people in Rabat, and it's really nice to settle in here with some movie nights and red wine (how I've missed you...)

I'm hoping to get started on some interviews about Moroccan names next week (and also might be talking to a group of high school students about my project), but in the meantime, I've been adoring having empty days of wandering around in 60-degree weather, taking it all in.

I think this love is here to stay.